Monday, 20 April 2009

Failing Grade for Scottish Education?

"Scotland's Education System is the best in the world - all other nations look to us to see how it is done."

During my time at teacher training college this was probably the most repeated phrase I heard. We had it drummed into us that Scottish education was the best in the world, at the forefront of pedagogical theory, and certainly much better than the excuse for a system which operated south of the border.

Sadly, this is no longer the case. Yes, Scottish education has a long and proud history and did set the trend for its peers. However the ball has been well and truly dropped. Other nations have taken on board the successes of Scotland and introduced them in their own systems. However, unlike Scotland they have then proceeded to evolve and improve them, leaving the Scottish system looking stagnant in contrast. The laurels have been so thoroughly rested upon that they are now flat and crushed.

The Scottish think tank Reform Scotland have made another contribution to this research, analysing the difference that devolution has made to education in Scotland. It would have been fair to presume that 10 years of specifically Scottish control of the system (rather than interference from UK wide bodies who supposedly do not understand the system up here) and increased spending (spend per head for secondary school pupils has roughly doubled over the period) would result in increased success. Sadly, this presumption is wrong.

The Reform Scotland research uses the same measurement of academic achievement which is used for England and Wales, which measures the percentage of pupils achieving five good grades, including English and Maths, by the end of compulsory education in S4. This measurement is considered more robust than other measures as it includes all pupils and avoids the artificial inflating of grades by means of including 'easier' exams.

These measurements find that the percentage of good grades achieved in England is now greater than Scotland, and further that the Scottish percentage has shown an overall decline since an initial improvement following devolution's inception (which could potentially be ascribed to the decisions made by the UK Government in any case).

This is a disappointing and alarming statistic, which requires intervention from the Government to counter-act. The problem is that the presumption of Scottish academic success has, at least from I've seen, hindered the development of innovative educational advances. I have
argued before that fundamental changes are required in how we approach education in Scotland, let alone how we fund it, yet it often appears to be the same old story, with ministers praising all and sundry without actually suggesting new directions.

Reform Scotland certainly have suggestions, their report Parent Power advocating the introduction of school vouchers, amongst other measures, as a means for improving schooling in Scotland. The voucher argument is one that, perhaps due to the perception that Scotland is a left of centre nation, has not really been discussed on a meaningful level, however statistics such as those demonstrated by Reform Scotland will certainly open up a means for that debate. There is therefore a requirement for those who support the current system of public education to elucidate its strengths and demonstrate the way forward in regard to changes and improvements that are required.

Scotland's education system can be potentially the best in the world again, if the welcomed increase in funding is matched by a desire to make education more than just rote learning, solely targeted at the achievement of examination qualifications which, if are being brutally honest, count for nothing beyond entering Further Education or possibly a first job (important roles, but not outcomes equal to the importance, and therefore pressure, attached to the exams themselves). Parent power is a good concept in regards to seeking to involve parents in the life of the school, but the Scottish Government must also be ensuring that the curriculum delivered in the schools is tailored to the development of our young people as rounded individuals equipped with a broad range of skills and experiences for life.

This broad approach has long separated Scotland's education system from that of south of the border and is to be treasured. Likewise the commitment to ensure that all of Scotland's young people are able to access high quality public education regardless of social situation or geographical location is one that we should defend. However, our system as it stands is failing to match these ideals, leaving a postcode lottery whereby luck and parental attitudes have as big, if not indeed a bigger, role to play in the educational achievements of the young people than the curriculum and teaching they receive.

This report is to be welcomed for the challenge it provides to the comfortable status quo and the difficult questions it asks. Now it is time for different suggestions to be put forward, to ensure that Scotland's education system again becomes the envy of the world.

More information can be found at Reform Scotland and the BBC.

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